Let me introduce Swami Atmadhyanam. Many simply know him as Terry. Terry used to think of himself as a Vietnam War veteran. Now he thinks of himself as a yoga teacher and sannyasin. The years between Terrys 11 months in Vietnam (1968) and the time he embraced yoga (1992) read like a textbook case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He recalls, I was in the pub when it opened and I was the last one to leave when it closed. I was taking 30 Valium a day. When I couldnt sleep at night Id get up and have a coffee and cigarette. If the hose kinked, Id get an axe and chop it up. If the lawn mower stalled, Id throw it over the fence. I dont know how I functioned. Yoga saved my life.
Atmadhyanams journey from war to peace was guided by his yoga teacher, the late Swami Hari Saraswati. He was one of a group of Vietnam veterans and their partners whom she taught for 12 years. When Hari could no longer teach due to illness, she asked me to work with the veterans.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is defined as an anxiety disorder. It can occur following experiences that are extremely frightening, threatening and traumatic. Intense failings of fear, helplessness and horror are generally involved. While most trauma survivors exhibit short-term psychological reaction (acute stress disorder), some develop long-term, serious problems, showing that the body has failed to return to its pre-traumatic state.
Historically PTSD was most commonly recognised in soldiers during and after battle previously known as shell-shock and battle fatigue. As understanding of the condition has developed, its wider occurrence has been acknowledged. Survivors of serious accidents, natural disasters, rape, robbery and torture are vulnerable, as well as people who witness a deeply disturbing event, i.e. emergency personnel, police and prison workers or the driver of a car that hits a pedestrian. PTSD is even experienced by people who have been subjected to prolonged psychological victimisation. As such, PTSD is a condition affecting a wide range of groups and individuals within society.
PTSD is a multi-layered condition with a range of long-term symptoms that prevent people from coping with life. They may not arise until years after the trauma if the person strongly represses the feelings associated with the trauma. The occurrence of symptoms is often unpredictable and erratic, undermining a persons knowledge of themselves, their identity and their own trust in their ability to function reliably at work, in relationships, and in society in general.
The symptoms of PTSD are categorised into three groupings:
Added to these debilitating, out of control reactions there is often painful guilt about both past actions and continuing dysfunction in the present, which is especially prevalent in war veterans.
Self-medication through abuse of prescription medication, alcohol and illegal drugs, not to mention excessive caffeine and tobacco intake, brings another layer of complexity and tragic outcomes to the lives of sufferers and those around them. Suicide, whether through the conscious taking of ones own life or through ongoing self-destructive behaviours, may feel like the only path to relief.
From the yogic point of view, PTSD is a state of extreme disconnection. The body, mind and emotions are perceiving and functioning in a way that has no connection to the present. A stagnation of mind has occurred. Ongoing, inappropriate physiological, mental and emotional reactions cause havoc with the subtle energy system and in this muddle we move further from, rather than closer to, the harmony of body and mind which guides us towards integration and connection with spirit.
The breadth and integration of techniques, philosophies and lifestyle which are hallmarks of Satyananda Yoga make it particularly effective in helping a condition as complex as PTSD. Theoretically, the yogic physiology of the koshas gives a useful basis for understanding the disintegration of personality inherent in PTSD. Each of the koshas may be in a state of crisis.
Annamaya kosha, the physical layer, is jagged with muscular tension and nervous and endocrinal system overload. A multitude of bodily ailments follows. Before the first yoga class, each newcomer to the Vietnam Veterans group fills out a health questionnaire. I have never seen so many boxes ticked digestive problems, arthritis, back and joint problems, hernia, recent surgery, tinnitus, and high blood pressure, as well as the expected psychological difficulties, including insomnia, headache, depression and anxiety.
For direct healing and support of annamaya, the yogic prescription of asana is simple, accessible and cheap. The effects are both immediate and cumulative. Relaxation is also an important practice for annamaya. The need to release deep muscular tension cannot be overstated for people with extreme and chronic tension.
Diet and the state of annamaya kosha are directly related. One of the things the veterans look forward to when we go on a retreat is the delicious vegetarian food. Many of these men are divorced and often they live alone, as PTSD is destructive to relationships. The lifestyle encourages reliance on convenience foods such as takeaways and processed meals, as well as comfort eating. In a comprehensive program the role of a healthy diet can also be taught.
Pranamaya kosha, the energy body, is intertwined with the breath at the physical level, the quality of breathing reflecting the state of the body, mind and emotions. In the person suffering from PTSD, pranamaya kosha is contracted. To contract the breath and prana brings suffocation of flow. The persons energy is unpredictable and has difficulty flowing with the river of life. The muscular tension blocks the nadis and restricts the breath. The mental and emotional tightness blocks the flow of knowledge and feeling into appropriate action, resulting in panic, anger, suppression, isolation, breakdown, insomnia or stress. The high state of arousal means unevenness and struggle in pranamaya kosha.
Asanas play a vital role in clearing blockages to the flow of prana in the body. To feel fresh, clear energy pulsing through the body and mind, that is the gift of asana to pranamaya kosha. Yoga nidra and simple pranayama are powerful tools for balancing, harmonising and managing energy. To be able to sleep without pills, without self-medicating on alcohol or marijuana, that is the gift of yoga nidra to pranamaya kosha. The vibration of Om chanting in meditation and the mantra and music of kirtan go directly to pranamaya kosha. They cleanse, they vitalise, and they harmonise.
In the PTSD sufferer, manomaya kosha, the mental and emotional layer, is rife with insecurity, mood swings, fear, defensive reactions, confusion or despair. Of course, these feelings and thoughts are in constant interaction with annamaya and pranamaya. Because of this, the asanas and pranayamas also bring some peace to manomaya. But the most conscious work on manomaya involves direct mind management. Witnessing (which involves detachment), acceptance and letting go are key among these.
To feel difficult emotions successfully (i.e. without destructive reaction), the witnessing aspect must be cultivated. We are learning to reassess and re-create our identity, our self-image, the I that we project onto all interactions: the basis of our perception of the world.
This task involves some rescripting of our life story. In the struggling, disjointed world of PTSD, the sankalpa becomes a precious, trusted friend. Here in the personal, private realm of sankalpa you begin to make friends with your mind. Positive, changeless, simple, on-call, the sankalpa shines a light into the deep darkness. Positive experiences in stories and visualisations during yoga nidra also help with this rescripting taking them on a journey to beauty and serenity. Place these stories deep into their subconscious. Inject positive samskaras into the mind.
Meditation is generally recommended for harmonising and strengthening manomaya. For PTSD sufferers, many meditation techniques are out of reach. To watch the thoughts in antar mouna will be a huge challenge. To witness images in chidakasha invites flashbacks in a state of isolation. To simply sit still and close the eyes is a big task in the beginning. A wise approach to the benefits of meditation is to balance the internalisation with some sensory input. Trataka and Om chanting offer this type of reassurance. Meditation practices that are non-intellectual, simple and foster connection to reality will help heal the shattered manomaya of PTSD.
I start each class with the tense and release series as follows: Lying in shavasana, starting with the right hand, take the mind there and inhale while creating tension. Make a tight fist while breathing in, focus on the feeling, try to isolate the tension in that part of the body only, hold it with the breath, release the hand with the breath. Each body part is tightened and let go three times. Finally, they tighten the whole body at once: the arms, legs and head lift off the floor as the muscles are consciously tensed. As the breath is let go the head and limbs flop back down with release and relief.
Om chanting is also useful. In a class, there is a group dynamic involved, as well as a physical process and a sound/vibrational input. At home alone, the sound is a companion. While for many of us the chanting of Om is infused with tradition, esoteric meaning and philosophical beauty, the actual production and vibration of Om is not abstract. It is very real for people with PTSD who need positive experiences of reality.
I have presented some yogic practices and concepts that can help relieve the physiological and psychological load of PTSD. Much more could be written, exploring the role of karma yoga and bhakti and seva in particular. In the journey that transformed Terry into Swami Atmadhyanam these have been vital. They integrate the experience of life, directing consciousness into the two remaining koshas vijnanamaya and anandamaya, the realms of connection with higher consciousness and spirit. A foundation for steady healing, however, exists in the simple techniques outlined here. They are accessible to all who wish to move out of stagnation and into flow, out of disconnection and into connection, out of dark despair and into the light of purpose and joy.